KWETHLUK – Gov. Bill Walker's dual vision of revitalizing the Alaska National Guard in rural Alaska and expanding the state militia is bumping up against the reality of the state's massive budget deficit.
But state leaders and villagers remain enthusiastic. The governor's team still is pushing hard for his rural engagement initiative. This week, some top military officials took helicopters to the Southwest Alaska village of Kwethluk, once a mini-hub for a thriving guard presence in the region but now an emblem of its diminishment.
The head of the Alaska National Guard, Brig. Gen. Laurie Hummel, guided Assistant Army Secretary Debra Wada on a tour of Bethel and Kwethluk to underscore the Walker administration's pitch for waivers. The state is seeking a temporary lowering of the standards for guard enlistees in rural Alaska. A parallel track would expand the small state militia, the Alaska State Defense Force, which is under state control and builds skills but doesn't offer a regular part-time paycheck the way the guard does.
"What we're trying to do here is continue our campaign of helping military leaders in Washington, D.C., understand the challenges of the Alaska National Guard in terms of reenergizing, setting our core structure back up and setting conditions so that we can enlist and retain Alaska guardsmen in rural Alaska," Hummel said Tuesday after landing in Kwethluk.
Wada, who oversees manpower and reserve affairs for the Army, is the key decision-maker with the power to ease parameters for enlistment, Hummel said. Wada said many people would be involved on any decision on waivers for rural Alaska. She indicated it is a hard sell.
"I can definitely see the general's desire to ensure the diversity of her force, which is making sure she includes the Native population of this state, which I think is very important," Wada said.
But echoing what she told village leaders in Kwethluk, she said, "We are as an Army drawing down. Our resources are declining."
The separate $2.3 million proposal to boost the Alaska State Defense Force stalled out this year in the Legislature. Lawmakers like the idea of it, but with a multibillion-dollar state budget gap, couldn't commit to a new program, Hummel said.
"It didn't survive first contact," she said. The state is evaluating how to lower the project budget in part by buying non-military equipment, she said.
The Alaska Army National Guard armory in Kwethluk, shuttered for years, was opened up for the military meet-and-greet with village veterans and leaders.
"Attention!" Wada ordered, quieting the room for introductions. She paused. "At ease!"
In its day, the Alaska Guard boasted 60 or so members in Kwethluk plus more in the seven nearby villages who sometimes trained there, said Boris Epchook, who served 12 years in the guard with the Kwethluk-based company, including six as the noncommissioned training officer. He recently began serving as Kwethluk city manager.
Now there are just 18 guard members in the 50 villages of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, though more are in training, said Staff Sgt. Joseph Sallaffie, who is based in Bethel.
At the end of World War II, some 6,400 troops served in the Alaska Territorial Guard across rural Alaska.
"It's like within our blood," said Chariton Epchook, who served in the regular Army before joining the Alaska National Guard.
Most people out here remember the Eskimo Scouts in the Territorial Guard.
Besides hunting animals for fur or teaching, the guard was often the only game around for cash jobs, Kwethluk Mayor Max Angellan said.
Then came the transition to the Alaska National Guard and the shrinking force numbers.
The Alaska Army Guard has dropped from about 2,700 troops in the early 1990s to fewer than 1,800, mainly in urban Southcentral Alaska, not in rural Alaska like the old days.
Command Sgt. Maj. Richard Hildreth, who is overseeing the rural initiative, consulted with the Alaska Federation of Natives board of directors over whether to seek relaxed standards in aptitude testing and education, in part so that a high school diploma isn't required. The AFN approved, if the waivers are time-limited and if new guard members get the chance to work on the areas they fell short in, Hildreth said.
They could get their GEDs after enlisting, becoming more confident and better guard members too, said Angellan, who enlisted in the regular Army in 1973, toward the end of the Vietnam war.
Alaska used to have waivers and Kwethluk's former members said that made all the difference for them. Those waivers, including ones for education, aptitude testing and hearing, expired in 2003, Hildreth said. In 2004, an education waiver was reinstated, but was extinguished after three years, he said.
In an isolated village where children still grow up speaking Yup'ik, some extra consideration is needed, village leaders told Wada.
Many Bush residents get into the guard as infantry members, but can't qualify for other positions, Chariton Epchook said. The aptitude test cutoff for infantrymen is lower because it is a more physical job.
He left the guard in 2002, one of the last noncommissioned officers in the village.
"I hope this waiver works," he told Wada. "Most of us didn't have any jobs. This was our livelihood."
Difficulties with English are a barrier to village residents meeting the regular standard, Wada was told. Most residents of any similar village would say the same, Chariton Epchook said.
"So is English taught at all in the schools?" Wada asked.
Yes, Boris Epchook told her. Students learn both English and Yup'ik. But at home, many still speak Yup'ik in this region.
Some in Kwethluk also worried that rural residents will be excluded because of marijuana use, which they described as rampant in the village. Even children are smoking during the school day, the military leaders were told.
While village residents see the potential for jobs and skill-building, Hummel said her goal is a diverse force.
"We very selfishly want the services of all Alaskans," Hummel said.
The Army needs to consider carefully any waiver of standards, Wada said.
"The tenacity and dedication that we look for in the Army is obviously part of your culture," the Army leader said.
As to the armory in Kwethluk, one of the bigger buildings in the village, residents said they tried to get permission some years back to turn it into a teen center, but it didn't happen.
Ask again, Hummel said. This time, the answer might be yes.